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Emily Barr Goes for Gold

Emily Barr is president and CEO of Graham Media Group, overseeing seven stations, including KPRC Houston, WDIV Detroit and KSAT San Antonio. Prior to joining Graham, she was general manager of ABC’s WLS Chicago from 1997-2012.

The Broadcasters Foundation of America gave Barr its 2018 Golden Mike Award at a March 5 event in New York; the honor salutes the most dedicated leaders in local television. “Emily is a consummate broadcaster, whose leadership and service to the industry and the communities that the Graham stations serve are commendable,” Dan Mason, chairman of the Broadcasters Foundation, said.

Barr spoke with B&C about the success of the Graham stations, and some of the more enterprising investigative work done at the local level. An edited transcript follows.

What is the biggest challenge in running a local TV group?

The challenge is always to remain relevant in what seems to be a period of hyper-change in our industry. You have technological change and you have behavioral change in the way people consume news and video and entertainment. We have been a huge part of these communities in which we exist for a very long time. It’s just remaining relevant and available, a medium that they will continue to tune into because they trust us and because they believe the information we are providing.

Is there concern the millennial viewer doesn’t follow in their parents’ footsteps and automatically tune into local content?

When I watch the response of the young students in Parkland, Fla., to the recent horrific shooting, I am really struck by how engaged they are. I am struck by their literacy to the issue. It is a local issue to them and a much larger issue for the country to grapple with. I don’t think millennials are ignoring what is going on in their communities. I just think their access to local information is really on their terms.

This is the generation of Instagram and Snapchat, maybe less so Facebook. They are incredibly literate when it comes to the technology. But they also listen to the voices of those kids, listen to how they express themselves and express their outrage. I am pretty impressed.

I have a lot of faith in the millennial generation. We have to make sure we’re not just stuck to the old ways of delivery. We have to reach them where they are.

How do you compete with Netflix and Amazon and the on-demand streamers that kids are growing up with?

I don’t think, in our local TV business, we are going to compete with Netflix and AmazonPrime. I think we have to exist alongside them because we provide a different layer to the mix. We are distinctly localized in a way they are not, at this moment in time anyway. I don’t think we can’t compete on the entertainment side. We know people are going to use those services. We all use them. But that doesn’t mean we don’t continue to deliver what is important to that local community.

How much easier would life be if you had more scale at the group level?

We look all the time. We kick a lot of tires. We believe this is a really good business, but we also are frugal. We’re always mindful what it might cost us to get bigger. Right now we are at this lovely size. We cover about 7% of the U.S. We are in good-sized markets so our reach is pretty significant. We are big enough to have impact, but small enough so that I can have direct discussions with every station. I don’t have a big corporate staff. There’s lot of direct conversation going on between general managers and myself and the folks on our digital team. I like not being so large that you lose that connection.

When you look at the Graham group, what is the connective tissue, the common ground in the stations’ success?

It’s all about being very authentic and being very connected to the communities they are in. When I look at how Houston and Jacksonville responded to the hurricanes, the connection we were able to make, not just in providing the coverage and lifesaving information, but going beyond that and talking to people about what happens next, what do we do now. Those types of stories are really, really important.

We just did a group-wide effort to cover the opioid crisis. We had different stories regarding the use and abuse of opioids across all our markets and we shared them with each other. We had six localized specials that really delved into what is going on in each of our markets. Our news directors spoke to each other so we could tackle this really complicated issue, this vexing problem for our country, and do it in such a way that was really localized, but [stations] also could take advantage of some of the stories that existed in other cities.

[WKMG] Orlando looked at infants born with opioid addiction. That story could’ve been done in any city, but Orlando dug in and did a really involved piece on that, and that story was used by each of the stations in these other markets. We did a lot of that cross-market sharing, but allowed each station to do the stories in the way they needed to for their markets.

I think that is the secret sauce. If you start to homogenize and do everything the same way in every market, it gets a little more difficult to feel like you are local.

Do you envision doing an acquisition this year?

It depends on whether the right opportunity comes along. We’re not opposed to it. As I have said, we kick a lot of tires. I think we’ll be fairly conservative. So we’re going to take our time. If we are going to do one, it’s becauseit will be the right thing to do.

Do you get a lot of calls from groups that are interested in merging?

I think we are an interesting-sized group for a lot of companies. Over the years, people have picked up the phone and called but we’re not looking to sell. We’re pretty happy with where we are. I think most of our competitors understand that.

Are there any interesting non-traditional revenue initiatives that are working out at Graham?

We bought Social News Desk a few years ago. It’s a small company that creates a software service for newsrooms. They’ve done really well. Kim Wilson started that. She was an executive producer at our Jacksonville station [WJXT] and left to start that company. We bought the company and brought her back into the fold. They are available on five continents in thousands of newsrooms — TV, radio, newspaper.

That’s an interesting little business we’ve been nurturing. It’s profitable now and I’m very proud of what they are doing. They have developed software to make it easier for newsrooms to use social media, to disseminate information. Newsrooms that have Social News Desk in their quiver can very easily drag and drop and move stuff into social feeds. It’s a nice little business.

We have a podcast group. We’ve got a couple podcasts out of [WDIV] Detroit and we are very pleased with those initial offerings. It is very new to us, they literally just launched a few months ago. Graham Digital Group is run by Catherine Badalamente. There are 24 to 25 people who constantly look for ways to improve our digital offerings. They are helping out with podcasts and other over-the-top things we’re doing in our markets.

Are stations other than WDIV doing podcasts?

Yes. We’re in the process right now of determining the next set of podcasts. The stations are pitching ideas to the podcast group. They review those and we’ll be launching more in the next few months.

When you look at the consolidation going on in the industry the last few years among groups, is it ultimately good for the end user?

I can only speak to what we’re doing. I think that, at the end of the day, those groups that continue to put resources and manpower and talent into their local markets and not try to turn it all into a cookie-cutter kind of situation are the ones who probably come out closest to their communities.

Any thoughts on ATSC 3.0?

I’ve always been a big believer in looking forward, trying to see what the next technology is. We’ve been a supporter of [local broadcast consortium] Pearl TV; we’ve been involved since the beginning. We’re very much involved in looking at ATSC as the next generation of television. I don’t think it will happen overnight. It’s a voluntary transition at this point, so it could take a while. A lot of the technology needs to be worked out. But I am bullish on ATSC. I think it will be good for the industry, and ultimately good for the consumer.

Besides Graham stations reporting on opioids, any other enterprise stories comingout of the group?

We put a lot of power behind the investigative teams in each of our stations. It’s their job to figure out what it is that needs to be looked at, whether they’re looking at local government corruption — we have had plenty to look at in all of our markets — or tainted water in Flint and beyond Flint, seeing if it exists in other markets. Those kinds of stories continue to be very important.

We had an interesting situation in Orlando that is actually resulting in real change. Anchor Matt Austin was rear-ended by someone who was texting while driving. He was stopped at a stoplight. He was very lucky to survive — he got really slammed into, and ended up with a lot of stitches in the back of his head, and a concussion.

Because of what happened to him, he started to do stories on texting and driving. Florida has one of the more lax rules on the books as far as states go regarding texting and driving. He has been testifying before one of the state boards and it looks like Florida may in fact be ready to have a much tougher law come out. There’s been a lot of credit given to WKMG and Matt Austin in particular for bringing the topic up and making it such an important issue. Some of that is because it happened to him personally, but I think he took it well beyond that and said, I’m going to go talk to people who have been directly affected by it.

Lives could be saved and I think that’s great if that happens.

Michael Malone
Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.